Aussie farmers unleash dinosaur rush as fossil findings rewrite history
By Yan Zhuang
It took a moment to spot the fragment, initially: fist-size and unnaturally smooth, nestled between shrubs teeming with burrs in an endless expanse of arid plains. But after the first, the others were easier to pick out, gleaming dirty white against the red earth and run through with a honeycomb texture.
“They’re bloody everywhere,” marveled Matt Herne, curator of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum. About an hour’s drive from the town of Winton, he was inspecting the fossils for the couple who had found them, farmers whose property stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. (The couple requested anonymity, not wanting the attention that would come if it were known that bones were on their property.)
“It’s spongy bone. Just like a sheared steak bone,” Herne said. “These fragments are telling us that they’ve probably come up from something underneath, and it’s probably quite a large animal.”
For as long as paleontologists have been looking, dinosaur fossils were extraordinarily rare in Australia, and the continent was a missing piece in scientists’ understanding of dinosaurs globally. But it is now experiencing a dinosaur boom, with a flurry of discoveries made over the past two decades that is rewriting the country’s fossil record.
Near-perfect skulls and teeth. A string of new species. Some of the biggest dinosaurs ever recorded. And many of them have begun with a farmer, tripping over an unusual-looking rock, in the sparsely populated plains of outback central west Queensland where sheep outnumber people.
“Before these discoveries started coming out of central western Queensland, Australian dinosaurs were absolutely, extraordinarily rare,” said Matt Lamanna, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. The paleontological community “collectively assumed that dinosaurs were really, really hard to find in Australia,” he added.
That all changed, according to scientists, when David Elliott, a farmer near Winton, came across some fossils on his farm in 1999.
It was not unusual for residents in central west Queensland to stumble upon ancient remains. Elliott, 66, recalled how his father would often come home after a day’s work on the family farm with his pockets bulging with fossils. Once he took over the farm, he also kept one eye on the ground while mustering his sheep, and eventually collected enough fragments to cover a pingpong table.
But locals largely kept their findings to themselves, fearing that publicizing them would bring a flood of scientists, bureaucracy and red tape into their lives.
When Elliott decided to contact a paleontologist two years later, “Everyone said, ‘Oh, mate, they’ll build a national park and take you over,’” he recalled, adding, “We were very much a test case for the region. No one else was putting their hand up.”
It was lucky he did, as the resulting excavation upended paleontologists’ understanding of how to find dinosaur fossils in Australia.
Earlier paleontologists had assumed that small fragments like those found by Elliott were the last remains of complete fossils that had been weathered down into nearly nothing over the ages, and now had little scientific value.
Elliott thought differently. Having lived and worked on the land all his life, he knew that parts of things deep underground could often be seen on the surface. He believed that the fragments could be markers pointing the way to dinosaur graveyards far below the surface.
When the scientists arrived on his property, he got his excavator and started to dig. His suspicions were confirmed: About 5 feet down, the earth was teeming with chunks of bone.
“That really is the watershed point,” said Scott Hocknull, a paleontologist at the Queensland Museum, who was there. Simply by digging down farther than earlier paleontologists had done, “you transition from not finding anything to finding everything.”
More discoveries followed on Elliott’s property. He set up his own museum in a shed, which would later become a nonprofit called the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. Locals who knew and trusted him started coming to him with their own findings. Paleontologists started using the same method to unearth more bones around the region, including of one of the largest dinosaurs in the world.
A paleo-tourism industry quickly emerged. Paleontologists who once left the country, believing that the only way to advance their careers was overseas, flocked back. Dinosaur excavations were organized, where volunteers exhumed dozens of bones at a time. And for locals in the region, who had been watching their towns steadily shrink over the decades, wariness began to turn into a sense of possibility.
One Saturday last month, inside a pit about 5 feet deep, volunteers — who pay up to 3,700 Australian dollars (or $2,475) each to attend a one-week dig — were hard at work. Many said they were fulfilling long-held paleontology aspirations that had once seemed impossible in Australia.
Cheryl Condon, 76, said that this dig was the eighth she had attended. She said she had always been interested in the prehistoric past, but never considered it a viable career option when she was young.
“There weren’t dinosaurs in Australia at that point,” she said. Gesturing at the dozen bones being uncovered around her, she added jokingly: “I don’t know where these all came from.”
As Elliott watched the ancient past being painstakingly chipped out of the ground on the same dig, he considered the future.
“You’re thinking about how that’s going to contribute to your museum and how that museum is trying to fit that to and tell the story of Australia,” he said. “And the other thing, for me, is keeping regional Australia alive.”
The sheep industry once thrived in this region, but a commodities crash and relentless droughts have driven many shearers away. The population of Winton has nearly halved to a little over 1,100 in the past 20 years, as people have left to seek better prospects elsewhere.
Tourism could be the answer. Elliott’s museum attracted 60,000 people in 2021.
“It’s gone absolutely crazy,” said Kev Fawcett, the owner of the Winton Hotel. During the pandemic when Australians couldn’t travel overseas, the winter season got so busy that tourists were sleeping in their cars, because the town’s three caravan parks and four motels were full. Fawcett is now renovating the 10 unused rooms in his hotel in anticipation of the next tourist season.
Elliott wants to expand into Australia’s leading natural history museum — something that will attract international visitors and that can benefit not only Winton but the other small towns in regional Queensland.
“Every town has a got a little museum in it, and no one’s coming from around the world to see that,” he said. “You need to have a major destination for people.”
For Hocknull, the Queensland Museum paleontologist, the discoveries they had made so far had only scratched the surface.
“The exciting part for me is not that the boom has happened, but what will be the outcome of all of this in the next 20 to 40 years,” he said. “The dinosaurs will continue to be found. Who knows what we’ve got?”